The Synopsis Checklist

 Last Spring I was asked to rewrite a significant portion of my manuscript.  Not revise, rewrite. The back half was full of so many twists and turns that the core of the book was getting lost in a mass of characters, subplots and confusion.  I knew that the plot would have to be reworked, the climax reimagined, but I didn't want to go to all that work and turn in my revision, only to find out that the new storyline wasn't working.

Enter the synopsis.

I'm not talking about a two paragraph synopsis for a query, but a detailed synopsis that hits every major plot point from A to Z and even a few minor ones.  Editors sometimes ask for detailed synopsis of sequels or with proposals for new books.  My agent suggested I do one so I could figure out the story before I started to write, and make sure we were on the same page.

There was just one problem.  I had no idea how to write a synopsis.  As many followers already know, I am analytical in my approach to writing.  So I came up with a system to summarize my story.  This system won't work for everyone, but I think it provides a good framework for getting something on paper that you can start to finesse.  Sometimes breaking a story down to its base elements will help you find the thread that strings it all together.

So without further ado: the synopsis checklist:
1.  You must have a beginning, middle and end to your story.  If your manuscript is already complete, congratulations, you've completed step one.  If you're planning out a book for a proposal or major overhaul, then you have a lot of work to do here.  At a minimum you need an outline with your major scenes (inciting incidents, reversals, false victories, climax, resolution) as well as some of  the connecting scenes and subplots. 

2.  Make a chart with two columns and as many rows as you need.  Each row is a chapter in your book.  In the first column identify the chapter number.  In the second column write 1-3 sentences describing the major plot points in the chapter.

3.  Now read through the second column from beginning to end. If you don't have a complete, revised manuscript, this is a great time to see if your planned outline is working or if you need to make changes. Does your plot trajectory flow?  Do you have rising action with some stumbling blocks along the way?  Are you missing key characters or themes for long stretches?  Are there chapters or scenes that don't advance the plot?  Revise the outline and chapter plan accordingly.

4.  Now take all of the sentences in column 2 and cut and paste them in chronological order into a word document. Break paragraphs at natural points.  This is the beginning draft of your synopsis.  Yes, it is wooden and rough.  Remember this is a rough draft. 

5.  Revise the paragraphs to make the words flow. Add some showing (there will be a lot of telling in your outline, and in your synopsis too, but you'll want to smooth it out some).  Cut out summaries of minor plot developments or scene descriptions that aren't critical to advancing the main theme.  Make sure all of your major plot points scenes (the inciting incident, reversals, etc.) are included.

6.  Read the draft synopsis aloud.  This is a great way to catch awkward phrases, missing connectors and disappearing characters.  Make sure all your major characters are included in the synopsis.  Don't let it get bogged down with minor characters or subplots unless you have enough pages to do so.

7.  Revise again.  This is where your individual artistry and voice will come through.

The strength of this process is giving you a framework to start from, so you're not staring at the blank page wondering how you'll ever condense your 300 page manuscript into a few pages.  Use the chart to break down your book into subparts and scenes that are easy to summarize. Then put it all together and revise.

That's it.

Now go forth and write a great synopsis!


This is a great idea. I do pretty much all this when I write my outline (minus the synopsis at the end).

For my first novel (and the 4 other books in the series, which I never wrote), I wrote the story in a ten page "synopsis". Afterwards, I converted it to an outline form.

Never did it that way again, though. After that, I just wrote the outline then the book. I eventually wrote the synopsis at the end of the revisions, mainly because it sucks trying to get 300 pages down to one. ;)

Your timing is perfect! I'm working up new outlines for a re-write and I loved your suggestion of using columns to tie the outline to the creation of the synopsis. It makes a daunting task seem a bit less overwhelming.

Excellent! I've shared this to twitter and Facebook, it's so useful!

So glad this is helpful! Thanks for sharing.

Great checklist! I'm not a fan of synopsis' either, but this makes it seem simpler. I'll have to try it when I rewrite my synopsis for book 2.

Awesome, Talia!

Brilliant! Thanks, Talia, the checklist will be so useful - I'm going to print it out to help me every time I face that daunting task of synopsis writing.
cheers :)

This is one of the reasons I love this site. Thank you, Talia!

wow! this is great! thanks so much, Talia :) I so needed this :)

Denise of Ingleside, PEI

So glad you like this! Let me know if you come up with some ways to make it your own.

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